Ruff Haven Crisis Sheltering is on a mission to help vulnerable animals through difficult times by making sure they have a place to stay. Their slogan is “Keeping pets with their people,” which they achieve by providing temporary foster care for pets while their owners look for new housing. This takes an important responsibility off the pet owner’s plate and assures that the animals will be well taken care of in the meantime.
Marissa Hernandez is one of the co-founders of Ruff Haven and the current director of operations. Before Ruff Haven, she owned a boarding facility and had many low-income people ask for help. One of her first clients was a woman with dogs who asked for help taking care of the dogs while she found a permanent place to live.
In January of 2020, Hernandez and the other founders began organizing and then hit the ground running later that summer. “There has been a lot of demand during the pandemic,” Hernandez says. That’s because the pandemic has caused a rise in housing instability due to disruptions in employment, which has likewise led to an uncertain future for many beloved pets.
Most of the pets taken in are dogs and cats of various breeds, but, depending on the situation, Ruff Haven can also place a variety of other small animals as well. “We once took in a ferret, and my daughter takes in reptiles,” Hernandez explains. “But sometimes it is hard to find vets who can help care for these small animals.”
A typical foster contract is written up for 60 days, but they can extend up to 90 days or even further if the client shows a specific need. Hernandez gave the example of a wheelchair-bound veteran who had to wait for government agencies to approve funding for his housing. “The typical stay is about 30 to 40 days,” she says. “And it has been my experience that people usually do their best to get their animals back.”
Lisa Volungis is a foster volunteer who takes in pets in crisis. She has been a dog lover for many years and has three of her own. “I’ve taken in everything from 5-pound dogs to 150-pound dogs,” she says. “Right now, I’m fostering a senior chihuahua.”
Before meeting up with Ruff Haven, Volungis had been working with another rescue operation for homeless pets for more than a decade. During this time, she saw people losing their pets permanently when they were temporarily unable to care for them. These pets were sent to entirely new homes, causing trauma to both the pet and the original owner. “I didn’t want to rehome pets that already had a good home,” she says. “They only needed to be watched for a month or two so that they didn’t have to go to a new home.”
Volungis started fostering pets in January 2021 and has had at least one foster dog about 90 percent of the time—about six or seven in the course of a year. The shortest stay was only three days long, while the longest lasted for more than four months. After having a dog in your home for so long, it is easy to grow attached. “It is easier to let these dogs go because I know that they have a loving home to go back to,” she says. “Most of these animals have been with their original owners their entire lives. It is so much better than having to put them up for adoption.”
Volungis encourages those who like the idea to apply to be a foster caregiver. Because the pets come from established homes, they are usually housebroken, trained, and well loved, which makes them much easier to look after. “It’s a short-term commitment,” Volungis says. “And it’s a huge help to people and their animals.”
In order to apply, applicants must simply fill out the online application at ruffhaven.org. A representative from Ruff Haven will then reach out within a few days to gather some additional information. They want to make sure they are sending pets that are a good fit for the homes and lifestyles of their foster families. For example, if your health doesn’t permit you to run around with a high-energy dog, they will make sure not to send you one. “They want to make sure you are comfortable with what you are getting into,” Volungis says.
Foster volunteers also sign an agreement to provide transportation to and from appointments, while Ruff Haven coordinates any vet visits that a pet might need during their stay with the foster caregiver.
While the pandemic has necessitated mostly online interactions, the organization is moving forward with quarterly in-person meetings for foster volunteers to talk about new opportunities, address concerns, and allow foster caregivers to meet each other. The central office in Salt Lake City is also a repository for pet supplies and pet professionals that foster families can use.
From Client to Board Member
Lexey Payne, a former client of Ruff Haven, now serves on the organization’s board of directors. While living with two beloved cats, Payne experienced a personal crisis that resulted in the need to find a new home. While she was between living accommodations, she desperately looked for a place for her cats to stay in the meantime. Wondering if there was a shelter who could help her, she combed through the search results on Google. “I ended up on the hundredth page of a Google search trying to find a place. There are tons of places that help you give your pet up for adoption, but I don’t think there is anyone else who is doing what Ruff Haven is doing. There were so many permanent solutions, and I didn’t want something permanent.”
She reached out to Ruff Haven as the date when she had to be out of her old house rapidly approached. On the last day before she would have been forced to take her cats to a shelter, Ruff Haven contacted her and found a foster home.
After a few months, Payne was reunited with her cats, and a few months later, she heard about an opening in the Ruff Haven board of directors. They especially wanted to bring on people who had been through the foster experience so they could get their unique perspectives.
For those who need assistance, Payne describes the process as straightforward. It usually entails filling out a form on Ruff Haven’s website, but the nonprofit also has representatives monitoring their Facebook and Instagram accounts to respond to emergency messages as well. The application provides them with information about the pet owner and their pets so they can make sure to find the best fit for the animals.
While animals are in foster homes, the original owner is assigned an ambassador from Ruff Haven. The ambassador checks in once a week with the owner, providing any updates and seeing to any needs. The ambassador can relay photos and videos of the pets to the owner, though the identity of both the owner and foster volunteer are kept private. For dogs of the right temperament, owners can come visit their pets at the shelter Dogs All Day in Salt Lake City to help ease the pain of being separated.
A Little Goes a Long Way
For those who want to support Ruff Haven, Payne has several suggestions. “Every little bit goes a long way,” she says. “It only takes a few dollars a day to take care of a pet.” In addition to direct donations, she says that they also need volunteers to walk the dogs that are staying at the facility in Salt Lake City or to help clean out the cat facilities there. For those who shop on amazon.com or chewy.com, they have dedicated links that allow a part of your purchases to be automatically donated to Ruff Haven.
“We want to expand to more communities in Utah,” Payne says. She describes the various community outreach programs Ruff Haven puts on throughout the year. These include hosting pet vaccination clinics throughout the state and opening their facilities for people to bring their pets in to be cared for by professional vets and pet groomers. They also visit unsheltered encampments with a vet to help take care of animals living there.
Hernandez says that she enjoys the work, but she knows who the real heroes are. “The real heroes are the people who are working hard to get their animals back.”
To donate, volunteer, or get help, visit ruffhaven.org.
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